SIFF Roundup: “Only Yesterday”, “Fat Kid Rules The World”

Poster for "Only Yesterday"
Written and directed by Isao Takahata

Studio Ghibli’s 1991 film Only Yesterday, from writer/director Isao Takahata and producer Hiyao Miyazaki, was a theatrical hit in Japan, but has not made it to US theatrical or home release. And after seeing it, I certainly have a guess why. This quiet, reflective film about childhood is conceived through the narrative lens and perspective of an adult woman, Taeko (voiced by Miki Imai), looking back upon her years in primary school. It is not precisely a film for adults or a film for children, and as such must be incredibly difficult to market.

Like every Ghibli film, the hand-drawn animation is simply gorgeous. There is a magnificent array of emotion visible on the children’s faces – when the young Taeko (voiced by Youko Honna) gives you the stink-eye, you’ll know it. Likewise, when she’s trying desperately to affect enjoyment while eating an unripe (but expensive) pineapple, you’ll know it. The resulting “performances” would be breathtaking coming from child actors, and are masterful works of art here. There is also a clever animated framing device wherein the adult Taeko imagines her childhood self and classmates literally following her around as she heads out to the countryside for a bit of agro-tourism. This leads to a heartbreakingly beautiful moment at the film’s end in which she is forced to make an important choice.

Unfortunately, the only weak link is the adult Taeko. Apart from her recent breakup and monotonous office job, we never really get to know her beyond her obsessive navel-gazing. So her dilemma about how to continue her relatively aimless life does not resonate nearly as well as it could if we had a better idea of how this vivacious 10-year-old became the woman that we see before us.

While the Japanese countryside is rendered with staggering beauty (even the reflections in pothole puddles are gorgeous), this narrative gulf between the two versions of Taeko is enough to hold back the “present day” (1980s) material from being nearly as interesting as it is pretty. Conversely, the childhood (1960s) sequences are exciting and rife with nostalgia (watch for an appearance by the Beatles singing in Japanese*!). The soundtrack is marvelous and expansive, ranging from classical tunes (including one of my favorites, Brahms’ Hungarian Dance) to more contemporaneous selections, including a lovely Japanese rendition of Bette Midler’s “The Rose“, which is put to great use.

Despite its shortcomings, Only Yesterday is an earnest and heartfelt character piece, well worth seeing if you can find it in the US (apparently it’s available on Region 2 DVD on Amazon).

FilmWonk rating: 7 out of 10

* CORRECTION: Upon further research, I was unable to find any record of The Beatles actually performing in Japanese, (although there seem to be a fair number of Japanese Beatles cover bands!). The Beatles are mentioned by name during this montage, but the song appears to be “Omoide No Nagisa“, a 1966 song by The Wild Ones (source).

Poster for "Fat Kid Rules The World"
Directed by Matthew Lillard
Written by Michael M.B. Galvin and Peter Speakman, based on the novel by K.L. Going

I’ve rolled my eyes on multiple occasions while reading the end-of-year Top 10 lists from various NYC and Chicago critics, as they invariably include one locally shot gem that thoroughly sums up the ineffable experience of living in their precious city. I never wanted to be that guy. And yet, director Matthew Lillard has forced my hand with an adaptation that is so quintessentially Seattle in its depiction of lovable losers and their various musical hopes and dreams, it would be against my very nature to dislike it.

Troy Billings (Jacob Wysocki) is an overwei- well, a fat kid – who decides to end it all by stepping in front of a downtown bus. He gets shoved out of the way at the last second by Marcus (Matt O’Leary), a strung-out, hyperactive kid who may or may not attend Troy’s school, and who immediately demands $20 in exchange for his lifesaving act. Wysocki’s performance is nicely understated, and the character is written with a deft understanding of being an adolescent outcast. But the real scene-stealer is O’Leary, whose performance strikes just the right blend of instability, delusion, and charisma. Marcus is, to all outward appearances, a homeless, unreliable, loser drug addict. For all of his promises about upcoming shows at Neumos – a fairly prestigious real-life Seattle venue just three blocks from the theater in which I saw this film – all of his grand plans to form a punk band with Troy seem like nothing but self-serving fantasy.

And yet, despite Troy’s credible degree of self-awareness about the situation, he is still swept up in the power and dangerous allure of the music world. The film has a darkly comedic streak throughout, but I would largely call it a drama, especially due to the treatment of Troy’s father, whom we know only as Mr. Billings (Billy Campbell). Campbell (whom I’ll admit I mistook for Ray Liotta in his first scene) gives an outstanding performance as Troy’s father, an ex-Marine and widower. Mr. Billings is a complicated hardass, to put it mildly. He loves his boys and misses his wife, and he’s deeply worried about his son’s choice of friends. And yet, he seems committed to doing the right thing, even if that means potentially taking on Marcus as the undeniable burden that he will be. I can’t overstate how refreshing I find this character and performance. I’ve seen such a staggering number of boring, one-note hardass fathers on film over the years (hell, Fred Ward has made a career out of playing them!). To see such a fresh and credible take on the character strikes me as nothing short of miraculous.

Fat Kid is a marvelous study in contradictions. It exemplifies the lonely and depressing experience of being an adolescent outsider, and yet feels incredibly empowering and uplifting by the end. It celebrates the complex notion of doing right by the people in our lives, even if they seem almost certain to disappoint us. As a musical coming-of-age film, it makes a nice pairing with Almost Famous.

FilmWonk rating: 8 out of 10